Truffle rustler shot dead

PARIS - The spiralling price of seasonal delicacies has generated a "luxury" crime wave in France this Christmas - and now one violent death.

An ill-tempered war in the South of France over the theft of truffles has claimed its first victim. A young truffle-producer in the Rhone valley has been arrested on possible murder charges after shooting dead a man whom he suspected of raiding his "truffle groves" in the middle of the night.

At the same time, oyster beds on the French Atlantic coast are being protected by infrared cameras, helicopters and mounted police as a steep rise in prices has brought a surge in thefts. Professional oyster rustlers can steal up to three tonnes in a single night.

Near the village of Grignan in Drome, in the Rhone valley, Laurent Rambaud, 32, a local farm union official and truffle producer, shot an intruder in the leg and in the head on Monday night. More than 200 local people marched in the rain the following day to support Rambaud and call for his release.

Thefts of truffles have become increasingly common in recent years as shortages have driven the wholesale prices of the much-prized underground mushrooms to between €800 and €1000 ($1412 to $1765) a kilo.

Wild truffles have almost disappeared in France. Almost all the harvest of the black French truffle, or tuber melanosporum, comes from plantations cultivated by farmers and wine producers.

The shortage, and high price, of truffles has generated a wave of truffle-related crime: raids on truffle plantations; the armed theft of cash from truffle traders; the theft of "truffle trees"; and even the rustling of champion truffle-sniffing dogs.

The shooting victim has been identified as a 43-year-old man who had previous convictions for theft.

Rambaud told investigators that he stumbled on the man in the dark, thought that he was armed and shot him in self-defence. The victim was carrying only a truffle-digging trowel.

- Independent

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